Norman Lange, owner of M. Lange Co. in Oconomowoc, Wis., knows pearls. He’s been trading in the natural gems for half a century, living and traveling overseas in search of them - but it’s 19th century America that he finds really interesting.
Those were the days of the wild Wisconsin pearl rush, an event eclipsed in American memory by the California gold rush but remarkable in terms of the number of clammers who scrambled to the Mississippi River to find treasure embedded in the muck. News accounts of valuable discoveries drew farmers and country folk from their fields and homes with dreams of instant wealth.
Noting the immensity of the Mississippi River and all of its tributaries, which virtually cover the north-central United States, Norman says the pearl rush was a sensational event that started in 1893 and stretched to around 1925.
“With the advent in the late 1800s of button making machines, which actually made buttons out of clamshells, collecting pearls became an offshoot of the button industry,” Norman says. “It was a lot of money for the ordinary person. They’d get a boat or skiff of some kind and wade into the water, and they could load it up. Most of the flat-bottom boats could put a ton or more of clamshells in it. The button company would pay a couple of dollars, which was a lot of money then. You could buy a horse for 3 or 4 dollars! It was an entirely different era that’s impossible for people today to understand. There was no welfare - if you didn’t work, you died of starvation. Not a lot of people were aware of how significant this was for those few short years.
“They’d take the clams on shore and cook the meat out of them because the button companies wouldn’t take them with meat in them. As they were doing that, the pearls might show up. They might not be round; even if they were just slugs, they’d save them. Very, very few of them were round. Written accounts of people finding them were really scarce. But men would travel up and down the river, buying pearls - I know two grandchildren of the men who did this.
“The current phase of our ‘pearl rush’ research focuses on contacting these men to see if they still have their grandfathers’ notes. In terms of the number of people involved, in four or five states it probably was second only to the gold rush. It was arduous work, but they didn’t need equipment other than a boat.”
A Story of His Own
M. Lange Co. was founded by Norman’s mother, Mildred Lange, in 1939. “My mother had a congenital heart problem and needed a less arduous way to make money,” Norman says. “Her aunt had worked for a jewelry wholesaler in Milwaukee and started her in stringing beads. At one time, my mother had five girls stringing beads, and they would string hundreds of strands a day. My father, Myron, worked in the business as well; he started around 1945, a little after I was born.”
M. Lange “morphed into importing pearls as people accepted their knowledge of beads and so forth,” says Norman, who turned to the family business after graduating from college. “In essence, I didn’t know what to do so my parents gave me a sales case and sent me on the road. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”
A career in wholesaling and importing pearls has been a lifetime adventure for Mr. Lange, a member of the Cultured Pearl Association and former president of the American Gem Society’s local guild. His wife, Virginia, works in the business as well, along with one of their two daughters, who designs necklaces along with being an exceptionally good stringer. Says Norman: “She’s as good as my mother was!
“All of our efforts are managed by Riley, a real taskmaster,” he adds. Riley is the family’s 80-pound standard poodle, who greets the UPS and FedEx drivers in exchange for treats.
Pearl Farms of Japan
While attending Tokyo’s Sophia University in 1963, Norman visited his host country’s pearl farms. “Japan in the 1960s was a lot different than it is today. It was a different world entirely. The extent of pearl farming at that time was quite large in the inland sea. Every landowner who had seashore property would have a small pearl farm of some kind. That changed with the advent of cheaper pearls from China and an opportunity to make more money raising scallops than pearls.”
After Norman got married in 1965 he still traveled, making the trek to Japan every year. “We hooked up with a very large company, and their Japanese office became my office also. We’ve dealt with them for 40 years; they’re still a buyer for us.”
Back in the States, Norman sometimes flew as a private pilot to call on customers. “I traveled the Mississippi River, where every tributary has different species of clams - and most have the capacity to create pearls. I’d travel up and down the river, where jewelers would sell me a box of pearls, and I’d say, ‘How much for the box?’ And I’d buy the box for $50. I never did any clamming myself - I don’t like to muck around in the dirt! Clamming is now illegal in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. There are about 63 different species of clams, and some are endangered.”
Norman says that chemically, pearls across the world are similar. They’re calcium carbonate hardened into layers with minor chemical differences. Shape-wise, however, there’s a big difference. “I can tell by the shapes whether they are American freshwater pearls or not, with minor exceptions,” Norman says. “Most pearl dealers can tell by the shape with a 97 percent certainty where the pearls are from because all clams produce a unique shape and even though the shapes vary, they’re unique to the region or the clam or the river.
“Pearls come in a plethora of shapes. Some species produce pearls that are wing-shaped. Those are quite nice, those are my favorite.”
What makes a pearl beautiful, Norman says, is “the variety and the fact that they’re from nature. There are only three nature-created gemstones: coral, amber and pearls. They’re special because they’re created by Mother Nature and not necessarily refashioned by man.”
Norman does a little business in diamond stud earrings, but the majority of his business is pearls, which range from 1mm to 15mm. “My customers are mainly independent jewelers. I don’t do online selling - I’m too old for that. I’m in the process of telling people I’m not doing business via e-mail anymore. Call me on the phone or send me a letter!”